The next Grammy Awards gala will see an album featuring a number of Cree and Indigenous artists from Canada competing in the Best Historical Album category.
Mistissini’s own Willy Mitchell is featured on Native North America, Vol. 1, an album of songs by Indigenous rockers from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Seattle-based Light In The Attic Records – which specializes in uncovering hidden gems that never received the attention they deserved when they were first released – produced the album this year.
The album features a number of Cree artists, including Morley Loon, Lloyd Cheechoo, Lawrence Martin, Ernest Monias and Brian Davey.
It is offered in CD and vinyl, and comes with a book of artist photos and interviews, lyrics and write-ups.
“It’s remarkably well done. I really don’t think they could have put it together any better,” said Mitchell (who is Algonquin) when reached by phone from Mistissini, where he moved for love in the 1970s.
Mitchell’s heartfelt music stands out on the record. His soulful, vulnerable voice and lyrics channel Bob Dylan and express a reverence for nature and animals.
The album features two of his songs. One of them, Call of the Moose, was inspired by an annual “moose parade” that took place in Val-d’Or in which non-Indigenous hunters would strap moose heads to their vehicles and drive them through town.
Mitchell says he was disgusted by what he saw, especially after he followed some of the hunters to the local dump, where they rolled the heads and parts of the carcasses into a large pit.
“What they did was so disrespectful,” said Mitchell, who translated his anger into a powerful song that communicates a deep-seated spiritual connection with the animal world and frustration with environmental degradation.
Mitchell still makes music and is hoping to do some more recording. He says getting music recorded and out to a wider audience has always been a challenge, something he bluntly blames on racism in the industry. And that, he says, hasn’t really changed.
“The only place Aboriginal artists get played is on the CBC,” Mitchell said.
But good music has a way of finding an audience. And when a Vancouverite named Kevin Howes stumbled upon 1981 album recorded in Val-d’Or featuring three songs by Mitchell, he knew he’d found something special.
“Willy’s music really reached up and touched my soul when I first heard it,” said Howes.
Howes is a true music nut, a DJ who has been collecting records for over 15 years, often hitting the road and digging through crates in thrift stores for long-lost gems.
Over the years, Howes began to collect more and more Aboriginal folk and garage rock. Impressed with its quality and wanting to get it out to a wider audience, he pitched the idea of putting together a compilation for Light in the Attic Records. After giving it a listen, they immediately bit.
A second volume of Native American Music is already in the works, and the prestigious indie-record label is readying a re-issue of an all-Cree record by Morley Loon at the end of 2016.
Howes says Native American music resonates with a wide audience of music lovers these days. He says the themes the songs touch on, like respect for the environment and connecting with one’s roots, are moving and still contemporary.
In addition to the Grammy nomination, Native North America received tons of media coverage from all the major music magazines and international newspapers. The reviews are uniformly positive, with Britain’s The Guardian calling it “a goldmine of forgotten fusions.”
But according to Howes, the biggest thrill has been giving the compilation to featured artists. “To me that is the ultimate victory.”